September 7, 2011

Your body doth protest too much, on Vogue Italia's recent use of the corset

Oh hey there gender blenders,

Let me tell you a little thing about corsets... My feelings about them vary greatly depending on how they are used. I love burlesque, for example, which often involves corsets. But there is a vast difference between the following two examples. The first is a photograph I took at a recent burlesque show, and the second is a photograph from Vogue of Ethel Granger.

Sammich the Tramp and Lola van Ella
Ethel Granger

Lola van Ella and other burlesque performers I've seen often wear corsets, but it's all about performance and taking off the bindings of femininity to let the body speak for itself. Ethel Granger's body tells a different story.

Granger holds the world record for the smallest waist, but she didn't there all on her own. Vogue writes the following about Granger:
Before their marriage Ethel was a plain, unsophisticated twenty-three year old girl who wore the shapeless 1920s dresses that William [her future husband] despised. William told Ethel about his appreciation for corsets, and expressed his wish to feel one around the waist of his wife. One epochal day, when William put his arm around Ethel's waist she asked "darling, can you feel any difference?" He could: a pair of corsets that tied Ethel into 24 inches, more or less her natural waist line. The process of Ethel's waist modification began. Initially Ethel was satisfied with wearing a corset only during the day, but William convinced her to keep it on while sleeping.
I find Vogue's description troubling, not just because of the story being related--although that is disturbing enough on its own--but because of the way they chose to describe Ethel and the wording they chose throughout. Describing Ethel as "a plain, unsophisticated... girl" before she started her "waist modification," indicates certain values on Vogue's part. Ethel Granger's record holding waist was 13 inches. Did you see the photograph? There is no place for her organs. That kind of waist modification actually forces the organs to shift position.

How exactly does Vogue not see how problematic this modification is? Not only that, but Granger's husband seems to have a dangerous claim to the very shape of her body.

But that still isn't the whole story. Vogue Italia's September 2011 cover features a model whose tiny waist they say is inspired by Ethel Granger.

I am extremely troubled by the way Vogue is presenting the fiercely modified female waist as beautiful, sexy, and as a possibility. It would be different if the images clearly expressed the pain of this kind of modification, and the history of societal control over the female body. But Vogue didn't choose that route, and instead subscribes to a much more sinister aesthetic--that women's bodies must be forced into submission, that their organs must move out of the way so they won't be considered "plain, unsophisticated girls."

I choose androgyny over the long history of stylizing, controlling, modifying, and taming the female body. Female androgyny splits from these traditions by breaking down the gender binaries that created them, and formulating a new, freer aesthetic.

1 comment:

  1. talk about scary and unhealthy. those pictures and the positive attention they receive from the media are ridiculous.